Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Fertilizer prices are rising – and this is an opportunity to promote more sustainable ways of growing crops

Farmers are dealing with a fertilizer crisis caused by rising fossil fuel prices and industrial consolidation. The price of synthetic fertilizers has more than doubled since 2021, causing great stress in farmland.

This crippling is especially difficult for those who grow corn, which is responsible for half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use. The National Wheat Growers’ Association predicts that in 2022 its members will spend 80% more on synthetic fertilizers than they did in 2021. A recent study estimates that this will represent an average of US $ 128,000 in additional costs per farm.

In response, the Biden administration announced a new award program on March 11, 2022, “to support innovative American-made fertilizers to give American farmers more choices in the market.” The US Department of Agriculture will invest $ 500 million to try to reduce fertilizer costs by increasing production. But since that is probably not enough money to build new fertilizer plants, it is not clear how the money will be spent.

I run the Sweat Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and have held senior positions at the USDA, including serving as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2013. In my opinion, producing more synthetic fertilizers should not be the only answer to this. . serious challenge. The US must also provide support for nature-based solutions, including farming practices that help farmers reduce or abandon synthetic fertilizers, and biological products that replace more stringent chemical inputs.

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Peas, beans and clover naturally add nitrogen to the soil and can supplement or replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

Too much fertilizer in the wrong places

All plants need nutrients to grow, especially the “big three” macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Farmers can fertilize their lands by planting crops that naturally add nitrogen to soil or by applying animal manure and compost to soil.

Since World War II, however, farmers have relied primarily on manufactured synthetic fertilizers that contain various ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with secondary nutrients and micronutrients. This shift happened because manufacturers produced large quantities of ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in explosives, during the war; when the conflict ended, they switched to making nitrogen fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizers have significantly improved crop yields and are rightly credited for helping feed the world. But they are not used evenly around the world. In poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, too little fertilizer is available. In richer areas, abundant synthetic fertilizers have contributed to over-application and severe environmental damage.

Excess fertilizer washes away from lands during storms and runs into rivers and lakes. It fertilizes large blooms of algae that die and decompose, depleting oxygen in the water and creating “dead zones” that can not sustain fish or other aquatic life. This process, eutrophication, is a major problem in the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and many other American bodies of water.

Excess nitrogen can also contaminate drinking water and threaten human health. And fertilizer, whether animal-derived or synthetic, is an important source of nitric oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Green Foam Covers Water Around A Dock.
Heavy nutrients that run off agricultural land produce chronic blooms of algae in Lake Erie, the smallest Great Lake by volume.

What is causing the crisis

One reason why U.S. fertilizer prices have risen is that farmers are forced to import. COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains, particularly from China, a major fertilizer producer. And the war in Ukraine cut off access to potash, an important source of potassium, from Russia and Belarus.

Another factor is that the fertilizer industry is highly concentrated. There is little competition, so farmers have no choice but to buy fertilizer at the market price. Several U.S. state attorneys general have called on economists to study anti-competitive practices in the fertilizer industry.

The USDA seeks information on competition and supply chain issues in fertilizer markets with a public comment deadline of June 15, 2022. But out of 66 specific questions the department has asked with this request, only one addresses what I believe is the key issue: ” How can USDA better support production methods that rely less on fertilizer, or support access to markets that can pay a premium for products that rely on less fertilizer?

Reconsider how to grow crops

I see an opportunity for the Biden administration to take a new look at biological products as substitutes for synthetic fertilizers. This category includes bio-fertilizers and bio-nutrients – natural materials that provide crop nutrition. Examples include microorganisms that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that plants can use, and fertilizers that are converted from manure, food and other plant and wood waste.

Another category, biostimulants, consists of natural materials that improve the uptake of plant nutrients, reduce crop stress and increase crop growth and quality. Examples include algae and other plant extracts, microorganisms and humic acids – complex molecules that are naturally produced in soil when organic matter decomposes.

In the past, critics have downplayed natural products like these as “snake oil”, with little scientific evidence to show that they work. Now, however, most experts believe that although much remains to be learned, current biofertilizers “offer great potential in terms of new and more sustainable crop management practices”.

Studies have shown many benefits of these products. These include less need for fertilizer, higher crop yields, improved soil health and less carbon emissions.

Large synthetic fertilizer companies such as Mosaic, OCP and Nutrien distribute, acquire or invest in these biological technologies. Agricultural business giant Bayer has partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks into a joint venture called Joyn whose mission is to “create sustainable ag-biological agents for crop protection and fertility that meet or exceed the performance of their chemical counterparts.”

A Hand Spreads Grains And Broken Rock Over Soil.
A farmer sprinkles two types of organic fertilizers – bone meal grains and rock phosphate – before planting spinach in Golden, Colo.
Joe Amon / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Offer more choices

Panicked American farmers facing dire fertilizer prices are looking for options. In public comments on USDA’s fertilizer initiative, the Illinois Corn Growers Association encouraged the department to investigate why farmers apply fertilizer at levels higher than necessary, while others noted a shortage of agriculturists adequately trained to guide farmers. on how to best fertilize their crops.

I believe now is a good time for USDA to provide incentives for the adoption of biological agents, as well as practices that organic farmers use to replace synthetic fertilizers, such as crop rotation, composting and to grow crops and livestock together. A first step will be to deploy technicians who can advise farmers on sustainable practices and biological products. The department recently announced a new $ 300 million initiative to help farmers switch to organic production; this is the right idea but more help is needed.

The agency can also provide one-off payments to farmers in exchange for reducing their use of synthetic fertilizers, which will help compensate them as they shift their production methods. In the longer term, I believe the USDA needs to develop new crop insurance tools to protect farmers from the risks of switching to more sustainable options. In my opinion, this kind of broad response would yield more value than a taxpayer-funded, status quo approach to synthetic fertilizers.

Nation World News Desk
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